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Giving thanks for an escape from Cuba

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Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 12:00 am

Plane props whirl-ed as 15-year-old Graciella Alcebo, along with her younger brother and sister, boarded a Pan American flight for Miami.

The once-popular tourist attraction called Cuba was now an abyss of despair, as communist ruler Fidel Castro continued his reign of terror. It all began with his successful revolution and overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Hundreds of people were being murdered by Castro's government and imprisoned for their political beliefs. Her father was one of them.

"We were part of an underground program called 'Pedro Pan,'" she told me. "It was 1961. The purpose of the program was to get as many children out of the country as possible.

"My siblings and I were in a refugee camp for six months and later sent to an orphanage ... . Fortunately, two years later, my father was released from prison and allowed to leave the island," she said. "The government confiscated all of our property, and we lost everything. My father was a dentist but could not practice in the U.S. because they did not recognize his credentials. He had to take a job as a janitor."

When Graciella reached adulthood, she took on various jobs in different parts of the country, ranging from working in a bank to an eligibility worker in county government. Eventually, she and her husband settled in Lodi and finally in Yuba City.

"Grace," as she prefers to be called, still has relatives in Cuba that tell hair-raising stories about the present state of the island. Here are some:

"Everyone gets free health care," she reported. "But by the time they are done rationing, everyone gets little or nothing — except the government elite, of course. The things we take for granted here are non-existent there. Hospitals don't take new patients because of overcrowding. Medicine is in short supply. Surgeries and medical tests are hard to come by. Doctors and nurses take on extra non-medical jobs just to survive. Your nurse could also be a prostitute and your doctor might be driving a taxi."

She continued: "Universities are 'free' but have strings attached. In order to get a college education in Cuba, you must first volunteer to work in the agricultural fields for two years. The government picks your major and course of study. Upon graduation, there are usually no jobs available."

Grace stated that the economy is government-controlled as well. This causes additional problems: "Everything here is rationed to make sure all get their 'fair share.' If you grow your own food, you have to give part of it to those who produce nothing. Pork is the main staple for protein. Fish and chicken are not readily available."

During this time of year, Grace thinks about various blessings and remains thankful for her escape from Havana. She is now happy to be in a country that allows growth and prosperity. However, fears still remain.

"I am very concerned about the future of this country for my children and grandchildren," she said. "I see the beginnings of what happened in Cuba starting here. When one political party dominates a state or a nation, power can become absolute. This leads to suppression of opposing political speech and ideas. Persecution of those who disagree with government policies soon follows. It's already happening on some college campuses. It's simply a lesson from history that we don't seem to learn."

After reviewing Grace's life story, I hope that she is wrong in her analysis of America's future. But I can't avoid thinking about the words of historian Gregory Gores who once stated: "Man does not change. Only his technology changes."

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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